For many theatergoers, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has never been an easy show to swallow. It is, after all, a musical about cannibalism. One of its trickiest elements is to get audiences to care about the protagonists - a 19th-century barber, who slits the throats of his clients, and his accomplice, a baker who turns the victims into meat pies.
At Center Stage, director Irene Lewis has cast a young, handsome Broadway actor named Joseph Mahowald as Todd. A homicidal barber may not be the most likable character, but in Mahowald's portrayal, there are glimmers of the decent man Todd was before he was grievously wronged. And when Todd gets a chance - two chances, in fact - to get revenge against the evil judge who wronged him, well, it's difficult not to root for the razor-wielding barber.
Todd's co-conspirator, Mrs. Lovett, the baker, is played by another Broadway veteran, Nora Mae Lyng. The actress has mastered her character's bizarre combination of unbridled cheerfulness and ghoulish pragmatism, but equally important, she plays Mrs. Lovett as a woman who just wants to settle down and be loved.
Part Grand Guignol melodrama, part revenge tragedy, part Broadway musical, part opera, part social commentary and, in no small part, over-the-top horror story, Sweeney Todd is probably easier to stage in excess than to rein in. Yet without downplaying the blood and gore, Lewis' production in the Head Theater has a human scale that ultimately makes Hugh Wheeler's libretto all the more horrifying. And beginning with Mahowald and Lyng, it has a cast whose stirring voices make Sondheim's incredibly complex score soar. (The assured musical direction is by Milton Granger.)
Consider, for example, the way Lewis handles the chorus and secondary performers. When these actors aren't directly involved in a scene, they frequently haunt the periphery of the action. They, like the audience, are witnesses to Sweeney Todd's murderous deeds. At other times they are unwitting accomplices, handing Todd paper and pen to write a letter to entrap the judge, for instance.
The plot of Sweeney Todd is adapted from a Christopher Bond play that gave its legendary penny-dreadful characters motivation and social context. Todd has lost his wife and daughter to a judge who condemned him to an Australian prison on a trumped-up charge. Escaping and returning to London, he teams up with his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett, who not only gives the show ample doses of much-needed comic relief, but also gives Todd a chance to try to redress some of society's inequities.
The score's wittiest and most antic number, "A Little Priest," is a glorious display of the show's humor and its politics. The humor takes the form of Todd and Lovett speculating on the culinary qualities of humans in various professions. The politics come in when Todd sings: "The history of the world, my love ... is those below serving those up above. ... How gratifying for once to know ... that those above will serve those down below!" Mahowald and Lyng crack each other up performing this number, and the audience cracks up right along with them.
Sondheim has described Sweeney Todd as a show about obsession, and this theme is ably conveyed by Center Stage's splendid supporting cast as well as by the leads. Villainous Judge Turpin (Ed Dixon) has a sordid obsession for his young ward, Johanna, the daughter he stole away from Todd. A sailor named Anthony is also obsessed with her, but in a healthier romantic way; "Kiss Me," the love duet Aaron Ramey's Anthony sings with Maria Couch's Johanna is the evening's most vocally lush moment.
Meanwhile, a mysterious, crazed Beggar Woman (Rebecca Baxter) seems obsessed with Johanna, Todd and anyone who has anything to do with them. Even Tobias (Ron DeStefano), the boy who works in the bake shop, seems over-the-edge obsessive in his affection for Mrs. Lovett.
Among the production's few missteps is designer John Conklin's set, with its odd black-and-yellow striped floor and back wall. While the central positioning of Todd's tonsorial parlor with its lethal barber chair is a logical way to keep the audience focused on the nature of Todd's business, the giant oven that shows up next to it in the second act looks a bit cheesy. And Catherine Zuber's mostly black, white and gray costumes reinforce the gloom of Todd's world, although I'm not sure why his competition, a barber named Pirelli (Michael Brian Dunn), is done up to resemble Elton John.
A few comments about the sound. While music director Granger does wonders with a mere six-member orchestra, such a small ensemble can't help but sound thin. And in the relatively intimate Head Theater, it's especially unfortunate to have the musically powerful cast electronically amplified.
But overall, Center Stage has mounted a production whose clarity of purpose is as well-defined as that of Todd himself. Furthermore, though no one could ever call Sweeney Todd a subtle show, director Lewis deserves credit for toning down certain scenes, a rape scene and a self-flagellation scene chief among them. Instead, she has focused on keeping the audience involved with the characters, and her success can be measured by the surprising degree to which the audience's sympathies are roused by the musical's murderous partners in crime.
Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. selected Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 11